Environment

Opinion | Superhighway To Eternal Bondage

By Nnimmo Bassey

The government of Cross River State is reported to have approached the House of Assembly of the state to endorse its request for an Irrevocable Standing Payment Order (ISPO) for the sum of N648, 870, 730,739.23 billion to be paid to Messrs. Sydney Construction Company at the rate of N300 million every month for a period of 180 years.

The superhighway project of the Cross River State Government (CRSG) was first conceived as a 260 kilometres long road slashing through communities and forests beginning from Esighi at the Bakassi end of the state to Katsina Ala in Benue State. After much struggle by community people and other stakeholders as well as the watchful eyes of the Federal Ministry of Environment, the superhighway was realigned away from the pristine forests with its length inching up to 275.344 Km. By this alignment the decimation of the Cross River National Park as well as community forests including the one at Ekuri was avoided. A tentative approval of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of this project had 23 conditions that needed to be fulfilled before the project could commence. But, ground breaking exercise for this project was performed by President Buhari in 2015. Since then, portions of the route have been bulldozed with cries from local communities of lack of free prior informed consent (FPIC) and adequate compensations.

Observers pointed out that with the ceding of the Bakassi peninsula to Cameroon, Cross River was no longer a littoral state as it no longer has an Atlantic Ocean shoreline. With this in mind, people wonder how a deep-sea port would be built at the tiny stream at Esighi. Commencing a superhighway from a seaport and having it go through an area that is rich in natural resource is the hallmark of colonial conception of infrastructural developments in subjugated regions. Colonial exploiters only needed the infrastructure for the purpose of extracting the attracting resources. The case appears to be heavily replicated in the case of the superhighway. Why may this be the case?

At the commencement of the road project, the Cross River State Government (CRSG) issued a gazette revoking ownership of lands stretching a massive 10 km on either side of the proposed highway. This meant that the highway was to take a swath of land measuring more than 20 km in width right through the entire state. This suggested that the government saw the areas as a no-man’s land, clearly a colonial mindset reminiscent of adventurers who claimed to have discovered geographical landmarks and communities that were already home to our peoples. The indication here is that the superhighway project was actually conceived as a super-logging project. The National Park as well as the excellently preserved community forests have an attractive stock of high-quality timber.

The plan to grab the 20 kilometres swath of land was rejected through the EIA process and the land uptake is now limited to a width of 70 metres.

While the communities and stakeholders fought to preserve their common ecological heritage, little attention was given to the financial cloud hanging over the project. However, some analysts had estimated that with the sort of funding architecture the government was contemplating, the costs of the project would not be recouped in less than 100 years. It simply sounds outrageous that any government would contemplate such a contentious project, considering that the state was already saddled with handling the debt incurred in the construction of its largely moribund Tinapa project said to have been priced at $450 million or N60bn in 2007. The naira equivalent would be N161 billion in today’s terms.

Now, we have a clearer sense of how the CRSG plans to finance more than N648 billion of the superhighway project and it is not looking good. The government is seeking an ISPO to pay the construction company over a period of 180 years, a cost which presumably does not include the consultancy fees associated with the project. If anyone knows of a financial plan that is more ludicrous than this, kindly share it with us.

The governor has just been re-elected for a four years term. If he gets the ISPO approved by the House of Assembly, his government would pay N300 million to the company every month for four years. The remaining payments would be executed over the following 174 years by 44 governments that would be in power over that stretch of time. Let us remind ourselves that 180 years amounts to 6 generations using 30 years as the measure for one generation. This suggests that the CRSG is placing a generational milestone on the neck of many generations.

It should also be recognised that within 180 years the entity now known as Sydney Construction Company may no longer be in existence. And it can reasonably be expected that the value of the Nigerian currency would have changed dramatically along the way. We could even ask if there would be any regional entity called Cross River State or a national one called Nigeria over the next six generations. It may be said that successors to the state and the corporation would carry on with the benefits and the liabilities inherited from the project. However, where does all this leave the people and the environment?

A note of caution has been issued by Odey Oyama of the Rainforest Resource and Development Centre (RRDC) in a recent petition to the state governor, urging him to reconsider committing generations of the people to a project of this nature because the highway itself may not last for 180 years “without the persistent demands for expensive and comprehensive maintenance.

This project is a superhighway to exploitation for not just export of forest resources, but as is now getting clearer, for extraction of finance under the opaque umbrella of public private partnership of some sort. This form of financial extraction benefits the one per cent while impoverishing the 99 per cent and has been appropriately termed “licenced larceny” by Nicholas Hildyard of The Corner House, in a book of that title.

This project has always presented itself as an ecological disaster and now presents itself as an economic monstrosity of an infernal order. It requires public consultation and urgent revision.

Nnimmo Bassey is a renowned Environmentalist, Executive Director of Home of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), former President of Friends of the Earth International and former Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action (ERA). This Op-Ed was first published by Leadership Newspaper.

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